A new exhibition of work by the German artist George Grosz is staged, this autumn by Richard Nagy in London. This major display will be the first in the UK since the Royal Academy’s retrospective almost 20 years ago. Some 50 works by the titan of German satirical art have been assembled from leading private and public collections around the world.
The works in this exhibition include savage caricatures and nightmarish visions that articulate Grosz’s sharp contempt for all aspects of bourgeois life in Germany. His childhood distrust of authority figures found its outlet after the catastrophic events of the First World War. Later in life he would describe his experiences in the trenches as ‘wholly negative’ and his caricatures of military generals in works such as Vor der Kaserne (In front of the Barracks) (1918) exude his hatred for the empty bluster of German militarism.
In the years following its humiliating defeat, Germany was cast into political disarray. Grosz established a reputation as a formidable satirist, producing bloodcurdling images such as Nieder mit Liebknecht (Down with Liebknecht) (1918) and encapsulating the cynical humour of Berlin’s Dada Movement with his wry illustrations for Die Pleite. Grosz became particularly fascinated by the decadent side of cosmopolitan
Berlin in the 1920s. In his art he fought against the base preoccupations of bourgeois society by uncovering a shadowy world of crime, murder and erotic license. Lustmord (Sexual Murder) is a prominent motif in his work, in which the combination of sexuality and violence is presented as a ritualization of the human quest for power, exemplified by political practice.
A highlight of the exhibition is an important work that was recently discovered in a private collection and has never been shown outside of Germany. The work is an earlier watercolour version of what Grosz claimed to be his greatest oil painting, Deutschland, Ein Wintermärchen (Germany, a Winter’s Tale) (1918), which was likely destroyed in the early 1930s. The title harks back to a classic of German literature, a satirical poem by Heinrich Heine, but the object of Grosz’s contempt is decidedly contemporary. In the centre of the image a well-fed bourgeois nationalist (Biedermann) sits at a dinner table with an upright knife and fork as though ready to start carving. In the chaos around him the viewer can distinguish brothels, factories and tenement buildings, while figures symbolising the pillars of society – the Church, the Military, and Education – turn a blind eye and loom in the foreground.
Several striking watercolours from Grosz’s famous series Ecce Homo (1923) are also on display. Dämmerung (The Gloaming) (1922) shows the day ending and nightlife awaking in the twilight of the big metropolis. A pimp with a cigar in his mouth watches over his harlots roaming the streets, while a neatly dressed businessman can be seen next to a prostitute who is wearing a striking red hat. A blind man at a house corner is selling matches. In the far distance one can detect a suspicious man walking towards the onlooker. A policeman, the so-called Schupo (Schutzpolizei), watches the scene from the corner of his eye, ready to intervene at his discretion.
At the root of Grosz’s political message is a moral imperative. As he wrote in 1921, ‘You can’t be indifferent about your position in this activity, about your attitude towards the problem of the masses… Are you on the side of the exploiters or on the side of the masses?’ For this reason, Richard Nagy is pleased to announce that the show will serve to benefit Global Witness, a charity dedicated to protecting communities and their environments from the abuses that result from natural resource- related conflict and corruption. Patrick Alley, Director of Global Witness comments: ‘We are delighted that Global Witness will share a platform with this fascinating and timely George Grosz exhibition. Being so savagely critical of corruption and injustice, his work resonates strongly with our campaigns to tackle the international systems, and political, financial and economic norms which exacerbate these problems.’
George Grosz (1893-1959) was born Georg Ehrenfried Groß in Berlin, Germany, though he spent most of his childhood in the Pomeranian town of Stolp. At the age of 15 he was dismissed from high school for striking one of his disciplinarian teachers. Fortunately Grosz had demonstrated artistic talent and he was encouraged to apply to the Dresden Academy of Art. In 1909, at the age of 16, he began a two-year course of study for his art diploma and was accepted into the Berlin Academy in 1911. The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 delayed his ambitions to be an artist and illustrator, but he was eventually released from service on medical grounds. Back in Berlin, he published artwork in Franz Pfemfer’s leftist journal, Die Aktion, and soon became a prominent member of the anti-establishment Dada Movement.
Grosz’s artworks quickly attracted the notice of the authorities and in 1921 he was charged with defaming the German army. He would be charged twice more prior to his departure for the United States in the early thirties. During the Third Reich, hundreds of his paintings and drawings were confiscated and many destroyed. In the latter part of his career he tried to establish himself as a pure painter of landscapes and still life, but also continued to produce compositions of an apocalyptic and deeply pessimistic kind. He returned to Berlin in 1958, where he died a few months later.
GEORGE GROSZ’S BERLIN Prostitutes, Politicians, Profiteers 28 September – 02 November 2013
Richard Nagy Ltd 22 Old Bond Street London W1S 4PY